‘Slipped through the cracks’: Victoria’s surging Covid cases put pressure on contact tracing

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Daniel Pockett/AAP</span>
Photograph: Daniel Pockett/AAP

Victoria’s contact tracing system is straining under the pressure of rising Covid numbers, with some people who were at high-risk exposure sites not being notified for several days.

As the state reported 445 new Covid-19 cases and two more deaths on Tuesday, some residents are also reporting delays in hearing from contact tracers about what they should do.

Alix Smith’s household has been quarantining since last Wednesday, when they received an email from her toddler’s childcare that a carer had tested positive. But it took contact tracers six days from the day of exposure to confirm the childcare was a tier one site.

Related: Guardian Essential poll: majority of Australians support vaccine mandates

“We tested Thursday morning anyway, and isolated, spending about three hours in total on hold with the department just to register that we thought we were close contacts,” Smith told Guardian Australia.

“On Friday I spent another three hours on hold trying to find out if an exposure site had been listed, and I had an appointment at a hospital the next day and wanted to know if I should go. When I finally got on to them they noted that they hadn’t yet been able to interview the positive case, let alone contact close contacts.

“It wasn’t until the early hours of Saturday morning that we got an email from childcare finally confirming the centre was deemed a tier one exposure site, six days after the date of exposure, and we would have to isolate till 14 days from the date of exposure.”

The exposure site was only listed on the department’s website after that.

In Victoria, a tier one exposure site is considered highest risk and anyone at the site during the exposure time listed by the department of health must immediately isolate, get a Covid test, and quarantine for 14 days from the date of exposure, regardless of the test result.

Related: ‘Recipe for disaster’: why major delays in NSW contact tracing have experts worried

Those who have been at a tier two exposure site need to also urgently get a test and isolate, but only until they receive a negative result.

The department of health refused to answer a list of questions from Guardian Australia about the capacity of contact tracers, and whether a boost to the workforce was planned.

The deputy secretary of the state’s Covid-19 response, Kate Matson, told reporters on Tuesday that primary close contacts of positive cases were being notified within 48 hours more than 99% of the time, and contact tracers would be focusing on the highest risk exposure sites.

“There may be some lower risk sites where we don’t think there’s been a big public need to list that location on our website,” she said. “But of course we are still checking the QR codes, we’re still texting you, and if you get that text message, please come forward and test as there’s a risk there.

“We constantly make changes to our contact tracing operations to ensure that we can undertake the public health actions of highest priority. ”

Lengthy delays in being interviewed by contact tracers are being reported. Melissa, who lives in Maidstone, was identified as a tier one contact last Thursday after a case at her work. She received a text message the same evening from the department of health to say she would be contacted for interviewing.

“I received a compliance visit on Saturday, however no contact from the department prior to this by phone,” she said.

“The staff who visited were surprised I hadn’t heard anything yet and made note of the fact. Today is Tuesday, and I still have not heard from the department. I have today attempted to make contact and have been on hold with contact tracing for three hours and counting. I appreciate they have a very busy and difficult job at the moment but I seem to have slipped through the cracks here.”

Her workplace has also not been listed on the department’s exposure website, though it is a tier two site.

A woman from Greenvale, where there is currently 105 active cases, said she received a text message on Friday informing her Coles Greenvale was a tier two exposure site and she needed to get tested. It was still not listed as an exposure site by Sunday. Others in the Greenvale community told her they had received text messages from the department of health about the store being an exposure site as far back as 7 September.

“I understand the delay in the contract tracers identifying what places people have been, and therefore the delay in sending out the text messages, but what I don’t understand is why that exposure date and time is still not listed on the government website,” she said.

The chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, Prof Catherine Bennett, said people receiving a text about being at an exposure site should not stress if they were not immediately being interviewed by contact tracers, and the most important thing to do was test and isolate.

It made sense that as cases increased and achieving “zero Covid” had been abandoned, the priorities of contact tracers would also change, she said.

“If you have a small grocery store in the heart of an area which is a hotspot, with low vaccination rates, and a positive case went inside, then you might call that tier one, but in another area where a positive case went into a similar grocery store, you might call that tier two, if cases in that suburb are lower for example,” she said.

Contact tracers were no longer trying to trace all cases “upstream” and attempting to match them into an existing chain of transmission.

“We’re way beyond that now,” Bennett said.

“And we saw this happen in Sydney, they stepped back from announcing and listing every exposure site.

“We know that most cases aren’t linked, and they’re not going to try to put a lot of work into that unless it’s a location they’re really worried about.

“It just makes it more efficient, and it’s the right way to approach it because we’re now putting out the main fires, but we don’t have to put out every fire, because the vaccine is also having enough of a dampening effect to prevent those small fires from taking off.”

She said if people did not hear from a contact tracer soon after receiving a text that they were a close contact and needed to isolate and test, it was probably a good thing.

“It probably means you’re not the top priority,” she said. “But you must still isolate and get tested. That is what really matters.”